After the 122-105 victory by the San Antonio Spurs against the Oklahoma City Thunderin Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals, it's clear the Serge Ibaka injury is going to be a problem for the Thunder.
When we found out on Friday that OKC's big man was going to be out for the playoffs with a calf injury, it looked like the Spurs were the clear favorites. Ibaka's defensive impact on the Spurs in the regular season was huge. A team that shot 64.8 percent in the restricted area dropped nearly 20 percent in accuracy when Ibaka was on the court against them. He turned one of the best offenses the NBA has ever seen, in terms of how they play, into a regular attack.
This is what happens when incredible length and athleticism control the painted area. Without Ibaka in the first half of Game 1, we saw exactly what the Thunder was missing. The Spurs lived in the paint, scoring 40 of their 67 points there. The combination of Kendrick Perkins and Nick Collison simply couldn't match what Ibaka did out there for them, and it resulted in the Thunder needing Derek Fisher's first-half scoring to stay in the game.
The Thunder have answered with a lot of offense of their own, but unless they find someone to protect the paint or cut off these driving lanes, it's unlikely they'll have enough efficient offense to stick with the Spurs in this series. As a team, the Thunder made 21 shots in the first half on their way to 59 points. The Spurs made 19 shots inside the restricted area alone and shot 78 percent in there.
The second half wasn't much better for the Thunder and their interior defense. They allowed 26 points, which was much improved from the first half, but they still couldn't shut off the Spurs' guards from getting into the paint. Kawhi Leonard made moves to get scores inside. Manu Ginobili got attempts for him and his teammates inside. Boris Diaw was creating for interior shots. The Spurs just dominated a situation presented by the Ibaka injury.
Tim Duncan ruled the paint and Tony Parker got in there whenever he wanted. The perimeter defense has to be better, the pick-and-roll coverage has to be better, but most importantly, the Thunder need someone to get in the way and deter at the rim. Is that Perkins? Is that rookie Steven Adams? Is anybody on that roster outside of Ibaka capable of doing it?
The answer may just be in the offensive game for the Thunder. Defending the paint will be extremely difficult without one of the best shot-blockers in the game. The Thunder had a good offensive showing, but it has to be better and they can't have guys like Nick Collison and Thabo Sefolosha having oh-fers. Westbrook and Durant have to go for 30-plus. Oklahoma City needs to pick it up on offense if the defensive presence inside isn't going to exist in this series.